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Hashtag Harmony or Hashtag Hell? 6 tips how to make hashtags work for brands

Another day, another company sees their hashtag hijacked!

On Monday afternoon the social media team at Waitrose posted the pretty harmless tweet “Finish the sentence: “I shop at Waitrose because _______.” #WaitroseReasons” – presumably with the expectation that their 30,000+ Twitter followers would start saying nice things about why they like to shop at Waitrose.

#WaitroseReasons is born


Well they certainly got a response! Just not quite the one they were hoping for. Here’s the top tweet of the day to give you a sample:

There has already been a fair bit of discussion as to whether or not the whole incident was good or bad for Waitrose. The Poke was one of the first to pick up the story and add to the mockery:

The Sun was rather less complimentary saying the campaign made Waitrose a ‘laughing stock’, but AdAge went to the bother of asking Waitrose what they made of the situation, to which  a spokesperson replied “It certainly provoked a reaction but we like to hear what people think”.

It can be argued that any publicity is good publicity and that this was all a clever marketing trick, but I highly doubt this was expected. Hashtag campaigns can be a dangerous thing and can backfire spectacularly. The Waitrose PR team can at least be glad this wasn’t a backlash in the sense that the #McDStories was earlier in the year, or the #QantasLuxury fiasco last year, which also couldn’t have been timed worse. As a result, Qantas was given the accolade of PR disaster of the year.

So was this yet another corporate #epicfail? Perhaps not. The hijacking of #WaitroseReasons poked more fun at the type of people who shop at Waitrose – rather than Waitrose itself – and Waitrose didn’t panic over the whole incident. The response was calm:

(organic) humble pie?


There was one positive takeaway, however. The @Waitrose twitter handle also gained 400 followers on the day, 10 times its normal daily growth rate. So overall, no real damage done and I would agree with this comment:

Maybe it was all a cunning plan?


In the overall scale of things, #WaitroseReasons will probably not be going down in any list of 2012’s top Social Media fails.

But are #hashtag campaigns always doomed to fail? Should brands avoid them like the plague unless they want egg on their faces? I don’t think so. Hashtag campaigns can and have been successfully used by many brands to promote awareness and engagement online.

#tweetforaseat, #homeadvantage and #takethestage are all recent examples of where hashtags have been used to great effect, although it does help if you have a global sporting event in which the world is interested to help your hashtag along…


3 ‘Do’s and 3 ‘Don’t’s for #hashtag harmony

Here are my top tips for how to avoid falling into hashtag hell with your campaign and how to make the most out of what can be a great boost for your brand online:


1)    … start a hashtag purely as a means for customers to tell everyone how wonderful you are.

You are only asking for trouble if you do.

2)    … start a hashtag if people generally dislike your brand and actively express their dislike online.

If you are the likes of McDonald’s, Nestle or Shell you should be very wary of giving your critics an excuse to come and bash your brand. But whatever brand you are, make sure you have a clear understanding of the social media landscape and general sentiment towards your brand, both long term and short term. In many ways all hashtag campaigns do is amplify the general sentiment towards your brand, whether it’s good or bad. So if you are unpopular, no amount of social media ‘engagement’ is going to change perceptions if people already think you are killing puppies.

3)    … tweet in isolation

Link in with other digital content or offline campaigns. Hashtag campaigns work best when integrated with other marketing channels. If Twitter is the only place where a hashtag is going to get exposure and it gets hijacked, many people’s first experience of the hashtag will be seeing someone else’s joke/abuse and that’s when they join in and the whole thing snowballs. If the first sight of the hashtag is an ad or some positive experience, people are more likely to engage with the campaign as originally intended.



1)    … go for indirect brand association. Your hashtag doesn’t always need to include your brand name.

If you look at many of the most successful hashtags over the years, the majority make no mention of the brand that is behind them. Conversely most of the big hashtag fails do include the brand name. The real trick is to build a non-explicit connection between the brand and the hashtag so that people know which brand is connected with the campaign even when there is no mention of the brand. People often don’t like overt promotion of a brand and will be more likely to engage with a hashtag if there is no obvious brand promotion. Hashtags with no mention of the brand are also far safer if things do go wrong as there isn’t that immediate link to the brand that is being attacked.

2)    … encourage discussion and debate.

Hashtags work well when they create the opportunity for discussion and debate that doesn’t negatively impact the brand, regardless of which way the debate goes. C4’s #TicketScandal to promote an edition of Dispatches is a great example of this.

3)    … encourage creativity and fun. Give people a reason to share the hashtag other than just to promote your brand.

Last summer Orange used the hashtag #ThisSummer to great effect. People like to be credited for their creativity and Twitter is the ultimate channel for the narcissist. So any campaign that gives customers and fans the opportunity to get some exposure for being creative and/or funny is a recipe for success.

This list of dos and don’ts is by no means exhaustive! These are just a few of my own observations. I’m sure there is a lot more that could be said so please share your own tips in the comments below or tweet me @alistairtweet – I would love to hear from you.



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Written by Alistair Wheate

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Gorkana offers PR analysis & evaluation across traditional & social media.

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